A Conservative PopulistEdit
It is somewhat ironic that one of our most personally conservative presidents set in motion the great Progressive movement of his time. William Bryan was hardly the most progressive man in the United States. A former minister, uncomfortable with evolution and uneasy with non-Christian views, he was not what one would expect to be the face of any America Progressive movement. However, Bryan was the man most responsible for welding two great American forces together. He skilfully bonded the dying force of Populism (a relic from battles of the 19th century) to the resurgent force of Progressivism. While many historians point to Bryan's second (and especially) third terms to show his growing affinity with progressivism, it in fact Bryan laid the foundations of his bridging early on.
The Path to UnityEdit
The Growing TideEdit
The Socialists were a growing force in the United States. Having formed in the last century the First Atlantic War had been a strong catalyst for them. Urging anti-war messages and asking workers to 'bind together against oppression' , many of their leaders had become quite powerful. One of the most influential and popular was Eugene V. Debs. One of the most tireless critics of the Roosevelt administration, he had made a name for himself as the leader of the rambunctious Socialist movement, along with more radical members like 'Big' Bill Haywood. While Debs could hardly claim to speak to the majority (such as his arch rival Samuel Gompers), he was perhaps the best known voice of the laboring masses.
Bryan had always had a wary respect for the more moderate Socialists, and even more for ones like Debs who sprinkled their speeches with references to God and the Bible. What had really drawn him though was the massive calls for peace in 1902, along with the angry tirades against big business interests. Both of these appeals to Bryan on a deep level, and he was convinced that he could 'bring them in' and strengthen his own hand in the Democrat party.
The first meeting was a total disaster. Meeting in early 1907, Bryan ran into a wall of Socialist hostility. Aggressive and uncompromising, Haywood took command of the meeting, drowning out such 'fusionists' like Debs. The meeting was short and loud, leaving both parties with little hope. Bryan's dream on uniting the Socialists with a major ticket seemed dashed. However, a few days after the meeting as Bryan was preparing to leave the city Debs came and saw him privately. Over the next few days, the deal was hammered out between Bryan and Debs.
The Grand AllianceEdit
On the surface it was simple. Bryan promised to support a number of new planks in the Democrat platform, including appoint Debs to the Secretary of Commerce and Labor to provide a direct pipeline from union to government. In exchange Debs promised to moderate his speeches and bring as many Socialists as he could into the Democratic fold. While seemingly a common enough political deal, it had profound repercussions. The first was immediate. After the deal had been reached, Debs broke it to the other Socialists, many still in town. The fire and fury of its realization is still legendary. Even for a party known for angry outbursts the Socialists Party outdid itself upon hearing Debs 'fusion plan'. In the end Bill Haywood walked out of the meeting crying he would never appease the government. Surprisingly however, most of the party agreed to the term, and Debs became head of the Fusionist faction inside the Democratic party.
This sent shock waves through both major parties. To the Republicans it had a two fold effect. To the conservative mainstream Republicans it only seemed to be justification for their anti-democrat views. The socialist fringe was a worse menace then ever. Conversely the Roosevelt wing of the Republicans, the repressed progressives saw it as a great move and many contemplated going over to the democrats. TR himself hoped the move would moderate such wild radicals as Debs as well as de- legitimize the dangerous influences of people like Haywood.
As for the democrats the party had always been divided over such Progressive issues. Inherently racist and agricultural the Democrats usually resisted such change but Bryan had bucked the trend (due to his own principles and political acumen) and brought a new and volatile element into the party. While many members of the party (Mainly 'Bourbon' Democrats) resisted the change the next year would see the challenge between Bryan's Populist/Progressive coalition and the traditional “East Coast” Democrats with the likes of Parker and Wilson.
All throughout 1907 and into the election year of 1908 both parties began to assemble for the coming election. The Democrats were busy ingesting the Socialists, still unaware of how much significance it held. Union membership went up as labor leaders began to see the possibly of a friendly government. As the date of the convention got closer the struggles for power got more intense. The "East Coast" Democrats rallied behind Parker and up and coming Woodrow Wilson. These Democrats were determined to win the struggle for the soul of the party from the Bryanites. They certainly had more money then the rag-tag group that Bryan had assembled. But the spirit of the times was against, not to mention Parker had been steam-rolled by TR in 1904.
The People's PresidentEdit
The first sign that Bryan was gaining steam with his approach was that the Democratic Convention was going to be held in Denver. A western city, Denver had long been a Bryan stronghold and that image would certainly color the proceedings. In the build up to the mid summer convention, Debs criss-crossed the nation pushing for fusion and gaining thousands of 'promises' Socialists vote. TR himself began to eye the Socialists with a wary respect. On the other side the traditional Bryan base, the small farmers, small hold miners and religious rural people turned out in droves to support him in his speeches. His motto “Who shall rule?” rung true against the gold-plated “Bourbon Democrats”
Hanging in the BalanceEdit
The Convention itself was brutal on parties but despite intense balloting,the chose had already been made. The Bryanite wing, strengthened by the Socialists, was too strong to refuse. With cries of “The People's President!” Byran was picked to run for the Democratic ticket in 1908. His running mate was former Indiana congressmen John Kern. Known for his ability to sooth ruffled feathers and a strong Midwest progressive he appealed to both parts of the party and would be invaluable on the ticket. The “East Coast” Democrats predicted disaster but all (except a few hardliners) joined the cause and supported Bryan.
Confidence in the Republican CampEdit
In contrast to the stormy Democrat process the Republican lead up to the Convention was less dramatic. Overshadowed by Theodore Roosevelt it was his new found protege , George Cortelyou who was groomed for the next candidate. TR had begun to rely on him for his cool head during the First Atlantic War and it had bloomed into a true friendship. While more conservative the TR was, Cortelyou was still the best bridge between the TR wing of the party and the mainstream goldbugs of the party. Still, even TR faced difficulties in dealing with the party. Distracted by being president, when the Convention did take place, in Chicago, he was forced to concede to allow Nelson Alrich as the Republican running mate. A long time Senator Alrich was known for being a tough conservative and political manipulator. HE also had a tinge of corruption about him, but nothing could be proven. Under this slight cloud TR predicted that Cotrelyou, supposedly modelled in his image, would easily win the election.